On the evening of August 5th, as a group of Egyptian soldiers near the Israeli and Egyptian border sat down for dinner, a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades hit their outpost. Militants then commandeered an armoured personnel carrier and crashed it into a fence at the border checkpoint between Egypt, Gaza and Israel, killing sixteen Egyptian soldiers. The incident was quickly dubbed the Ramadan massacre – it was the deadliest attack on the Sinai in four decades.
The morning after the attack, I was sitting with friends in the restaurant of an upscale resort in Dahab, a Bedouin fishing village turned tourist diving Mecca in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, about fifty miles from the border of Israel. Dahab, which means gold in Arabic, feels more like backpacker Southeast Asia than Egypt’s conservative mainland. The bars, restaurants and bikinis draw tourists as well as the ex-pat crowd, who come for the clean air and crystalline water.
The Sinai Peninsula is divided between its northern and southern halves. While the south has tourism, coral reefs and beaches, the north struggles by on desert agriculture and, more lucratively, weapons trafficking to Gaza. Although the Sinai was restive under Mubarak, it seems like anything goes in the peninsula since the Egyptian revolution.
Bedouins – traditionally nomadic Arabs who live in the Sinai – have a long and contentious relationship with mainland Egypt. In the wake of Israel’s withdrawal from the Peninsula in 1982, the Bedouin were accused of collaborating with the Jewish state and have since been barred from lucrative military, government and tourist industry jobs.
The Egyptian government initially blamed the Bedouin for a rash of bombings in the Sinai in the mid-2000s (which hit Sharm El Sheikh and Dahab and killed over 100 people) that they then claimed were committed by an Islamic terror organisation called Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. Before recanting, the government launched a devastating series of security sweeps that threw 3,000 Bedouin in jail. This fuelled a longstanding anger at the government in the region.
In the south, the Bedouin feel the only way they can get the Egyptian government to listen to their demands and release imprisoned family members is to kidnap foreigners, often from the area around St. Catherine’s, a sixth-century monastery built at the base of Mt. Sinai. The foreign hostages are customarily released unharmed after a few days or hours.
Violence, mostly in the north, reached a crescendo this summer. There were rampant shoot-outs and gas line bombings by Bedouins or militants working under the cover of Bedouins. Even though most of the violence occurred far from tourist beaches, vacation hotspots like Dahar have had their economies decimated. In my four years in the Middle East, I’ve never seen beaches so empty.
Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, has used the violence in the Sinai as an opportunity to clean house and tighten the reins in the capital. After the August attack, he sacked top generals and deployed the largest offensive in the peninsula since 1973, called “Operation Eagle,” complete with missiles and helicopter gunships. Despite frequent headlines in the state media about the assault, the operation showed almost no concrete results and the Sinai’s reputation continues to spiral.
In Dahab, hotel operators and restaurant owners are understandably dejected. Frequently confusing north and south Sinai, foreigners will likely stay away and the tourist economy in this idyllic seaside town will continue to tank.
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More disagreements and explosions from Egypt: